Russell Hebets March 19, 2013

I was talking to a younger cousin of mine recently about a criminal case he had read about in the paper. In that case, a man was arrested and charged for having 40 kilos of cocaine in his basement. However, when the case went to court, a judge suppressed all of the evidence found in the house, including the cocaine, because the police officers entered the home without consent, and without a warrant. Because this left the state with no evidence, the case was dismissed. My cousin was exasperated by this. He said, “The guy is clearly a drug dealer and is going to get off clean because of a technicality!” The case that was dismissed illustrates the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which is a long held exclusionary rule of evidence that precludes theadmissioninto evidence anything obtained unlawfully through illegal search or seizure. The phrase was coined in the famous Supreme Court case Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963), 488.

This is not the first time I have heard this opinion expressed, and I can understand an average citizen’s frustration when this happens. When I was a deputy district attorney and saw situations like this first hand (and not infrequently), I felt the same way. Yet, there is a sound philosophy behind this doctrine. The basic idea is that we hold our guaranteed Constitutional rights in such high regard that if the government violates those rights (usually through actions of police officers), it should be sanctioned by losing the evidence that is illegally obtained. The principal goal of this sanction is to make sure that law enforcement officials everywhere are deterred from this type of conduct.

Yes, it is true that the application of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine will mean that some clearly guilty criminals who were caught red handed will get off the hook. However, we as a society must make sure that the police are policed. Think of it this way- in our cocaine case example- what if the courts allowed the evidence to come in despite the Constitutional violation? The message to police everywhere would be “Go ahead and obtain evidence any way you can, even if it means breaking down someone’s door without a warrant. The courts will make it right.” This would give way to an unchecked police force, and a severe undermining of the Constitution where our rights become meaningless. The reason this won’t happen is because the rights of the individual must always trump the errors of the government- even if it means an otherwise guilty criminal will walk away unscathed.

The next time you hear “that person just got off because of a technicality,” you may experience a knee-jerk reaction that an injustice was done. But think about it for a moment, and put yourself in the defendant’s shoes. It might just be that justice prevailed.